PER Diem: May 5, 2009
Atlanta is a long shot, but here are five things the Hawks must do to upset the Cavs
"Nobody believed in us!" is a common refrain by players after an important win, but rarely is it true. More often it's just a motivational ploy concocted in the locker room, often by teams that are actually favored.
The Atlanta Hawks are an exception to that rule, however. Tonight they open a best-of-seven series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and I have yet to meet a single person who thinks they'll win. I live in Atlanta, mind you. Truly, nobody believes in them.
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The task appears daunting. For starters, Cleveland had the best record in the league and boasts the league's most valuable player in LeBron James. Experience is another factor. The Cavs have been here before, having advanced to the NBA Finals in 2007. Atlanta hasn't. The Hawks haven't made the conference finals since 1970, and until two days ago they hadn't won a series this century. And if it comes down to a seventh game, it will be played in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs have two losses in 43 tries this season, only one of which came against their starters.
So how can the Hawks pull off this herculean feat? Not easily. But with success in five areas, they can make this thing competitive. In addition, they'll need some friendly bounces, kind whistles and luck in close games. But if they can take care of the items on this list, they'll at least be in a position to get lucky and that's half the battle.
1. Carry over the Wade rules
The Hawks' reward for beating the league's second-best player is that now they get to play its best. But in some ways, this is a good thing. Atlanta isn't going to have to change a whole lot defensively from how it played against Dwyane Wade in Round 1. The principles are the same: crowd the paint, build a wall and make him a jump-shooter, and then try to react quickly when he kicks the ball out to shooters.
You'll see Maurice Evans get the bulk of minutes against James, and Marvin Williams (whose injured right wrist should allow him to return at some point early in the series) and Joe Johnson probably will get heavy doses of him as well. When Cleveland goes small we could see Josh Smith take a turn on James, too.
James blew up on Atlanta in only one of the four regular-season meetings, a 33-point, nine-assist performance in the Hawks' 97-92 win in December, so Atlanta has shown an ability to contain him (just as it did against Wade in the regular season). Atlanta lost three of the four meetings because its own offense has struggled, and because another player got away from the Hawks
2. Stop the Mo-mentum
Mike Bibby is a great shooter and has had one of his best seasons, but there's one little thing he doesn't do so well: defend. The Hawks have gone to great lengths to hide his shortcomings, often using Johnson or Flip Murray to defend opposing point guards and planting Bibby on a non-scorer. But sometimes the matchups don't allow them to do so.
This series is one example. In four meetings against the Hawks, Mo Williams scored 20, 23, 24 and 26 points, and made more than half his shots in all four games. That's the biggest difference between this series and the last one: Cleveland has two other players who can also put up big point totals in Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Miami was pretty much a one-man show.
Ilguaskas is a tough cover for the Hawks since he can shoot right over Al Horford with his six-inch height advantage, while Williams is elusive and benefits hugely from all the attention paid to LeBron. It's a very difficult pairing for Atlanta, especially since both are outstanding shooters.
Ilgauskas was 20-of-32 against Atlanta and missed the one game Cleveland lost, but Atlanta can at least change some things against him. For instance, using the bigger Zaza Pachulia to guard him and going with a bigger frontcourt lineup could be a way to limit him. In fact, don't be surprised if the Hawks at some point go Smith-Horford-Pachulia along the front line to match up with Cleveland's hulking size.
Against Williams, however, it's a more difficult proposition. The Hawks could put Murray in at the point to defend Williams, but only at a huge offensive cost. Atlanta needs Bibby on the court for his floor-spacing, ballhandling and general offensive savvy, but that means the spotlight is on him to keep Williams somewhere near his season averages of 17.8 points and 46.7 percent shooting.
3. Bring the noise
In the regular season, Atlanta's Philips Arena is synonymous with morgue-like crowds, especially in first quarters when many ticket holders are still battling the ATL's notorious traffic. It's gotten better the past few seasons, but it still pales in comparison to the home crowds of most of the other elite teams. (Did you see that? I just used "Atlanta" and "elite teams" in the same paragraph and you didn't even flinch!)
Fortunately, Atlanta's citizens love to show up for big events. Witness the roaring masses who showed up for last season's series against Boston, and propelled the Hawks to three unlikely home wins against the East's top seed. Against the star power of LeBron and the Cavs, expect a similarly hostile environment.
Atlanta has been as good as anyone in its own building this year; the Hawks have been much more likely to push the tempo and get easy transition buckets. They'll need to be in this series, because the most likely path to victory is to leave Cleveland with a split and then sweep all three games in their own building.
They pulled off the latter feat a year ago, so it's doable. In fact, they nearly did it in the regular season. In two meetings against Cleveland at Philips, they won the first by five and lost the second by a single point after a questionable foul call sent James to the line with 1.6 seconds left.
4. Spread the floor
The Cavs ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and they're a bit unique at that end because they use their size to make the court seem the size of a phone booth (with apologies to younger readers for the anachronistic reference).
James is 6-foot-9, Anderson Varejao is 6-11 and Ilgauskas is 7-3, and their other players aren't exactly midgets, either. They're also all mobile, so players like James, Varejao and Delonte West can move into a much closer position for the help side than most players and still be able to get back to their men. It's a big reason Cleveland led the NBA in 3-point shooting defense, holding the opposition to 33.3 percent from downtown.
The challenge for the Hawks isn't trying to beat Cleveland at what it does best by hoisting a bunch of long bombs. It's merely keeping the Cavaliers honest by moving the ball and keeping the help-side defenders occupied. Atlanta's ball movement in Game 7 against Miami was unbelievable, but at other times in the series it was positively horrendous.
Players like Smith and Murray tend to have the ball stick when it gets to them as they look to go one-on-one. In this series, they need to either move the ball or make a quick move, because otherwise they're going to be swarmed from the weak side. Smith in particular struggled mightily against the Cavs. In three regular-season games he averaged 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Unstated thus far is the obvious fact that Johnson will need to make good decisions with the ball. He needs to get his share of one-on-one scoring and react quickly if and when the Cavs double. We should expect the latter at some point, as even the vaunted Celtics defense of a season ago started throwing the kitchen sink at Johnson after he single-handedly led Atlanta to a win in Game 4.
5. Show up on the road
I saved this for last since it's the most difficult piece of the equation. Atlanta can probably take care of most or all of the above items, but even if the Hawks win three times in Philips Arena they won't win the series unless they beat the Cavs in their building.
As far as that goes, the omens aren't good. The Hawks have played seven road playoff games in the past two seasons. They've been blown out of the building in six of them, losing by 23, 19, 25, 34, 29 and 26. Meanwhile, the Cavs are 41-2 at the Q this season.
Cleveland beat Atlanta twice there this season, and neither game was particularly close. Though the second one had a 102-96 final score, Atlanta was down 14 with two minutes left and went on a 10-2 run against the Cavs' scrubs before coach Mike Brown put his starters back in.
Somehow, Atlanta needs to win there at least once, and possibly twice. But the Hawks have been a bad road team all season. Their 15-game disparity between home wins (31) and road wins (16) was tied for the league's second-largest. Only Utah (18 games) had a larger spread.
As a result, the smart money still says the Cavs win in five. The Hawks can win at least once in Philips; they might even win twice. But three of the first five games will be in a place where the Cavs were invincible and the Hawks were horrible. Unless they find a way to change that dynamic, the series will be a quick one.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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